Alaska has unspoiled beauty and jaw-dropping landscapes that need to be seen with your eyes and felt with your heart. It’s no wonder that visitors are flocking there in unprecedented numbers. Most are visiting on a cruise ship.
This magnificent place offers human solitude and a remote wilderness that is rapidly disappearing in today’s world. But planning is required to get the most from an experience that is not a low-budget exercise.
What type of cruise
The first decision to make is which itinerary to sail. There are basically two options to choose from. First, a roundtrip from either Seattle or Vancouver where the cruise ship sails half way and back to the same port. Second, a 7-8-day one-way cruise from Vancouver to Whittier or Seward; or vice versa. I recently did the latter and would recommend it to anyone. The advantage is you get to see more of Alaska. The disadvantage is that you probably have to fly one-way.
What cruise line
For those who have never sailed an Alaska cruise, instead of choosing a cruise line first, pick your itinerary and ports to visit, then find the cruise lines that go there. You will find that there is quite a range of price which in some cases (but not all) reflects the luxury of the ship. Remember that you will be in ports for at least three full days so you may have less time than you think to sample all the ship has to offer.
When to go
The Alaska cruise season runs from May to September. You really can’t go wrong sailing in any of these months giving that you will experience the maximum amount of daylight to enjoy scenic views. Bear in mind it rains a lot in Alaska. May is the driest month with only a 25% chance of rain. The rain comes more frequently as the summer progresses so by August, the probability of precipitation increases to over 50% on any given day.
If you plan to visit Alaska to view the northern lights (aurora borealis), you need to be away from the bright lights of the cities. You can only see the aurora borealis at night, and the optimum months are between September to April so cruising is not the ideal environment.
What to see
Majestic mountains, wildlife and interesting ports are top of most traveller’s list. Maybe the hardest decision is which glaciers to see. The choices for glacier sightings in most cases are Glacier Bay National Park and Hubbard Glacier although some ships offer excursions to Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm, and College Fjord. I strongly recommend Glacier Bay which has seven tidewater glaciers and takes a day to sail around.
The icebergs are fascinating, the glaciers and mountains awe-inspiring, and the peacefulness is wonderful. Only two cruise boats are allowed in each day and each must be accompanied by a ranger who provides a large amount of information over the public address system.
Almost every Alaska cruise stops at Juneau, the capital of Alaska, Ketchikan, and Skagway. A few itineraries include Sitka, Haines or Icy Strait Point.
Quaint Ketchikan has a small town, homey feel to it. Its economy is based around the fishing, forestry and tourism industries. It has the most totem poles in Alaska and is famous for Creek Street, a former red-light district where visitors can re-live the town’s historic past at the Dolly’s House Museum.
Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is landlocked by glacial mountains. Bears, deer, mountain goats and eagles can be spotted on land while seals, humpback whales, orca, sea lions, and porpoise are common in the water. Mendenhall Glacier can be visited by bus some 20 kilometres outside town.
Skagway was founded during the gold rush era, and much of its old town charm remains. Take time to walk the town for its buildings and shops have much charm, and perhaps catch the Days of 98 Show which has been running since 1923. Don’t miss the railway or bus ride up to the top of White Pass as you will see a panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges and waterfalls.
What to pack
Layers are the key because it can be cold and some days are likely to be wet. A waterproof jacket with a hood is a must-have to protect you from the wind and rain. Pack a pair of gloves, hat, and scarf so you can enjoy the magnificent views from the ship’s deck, and footwear to keep your feet dry when it rains on-shore. Alaskan cruises are generally quite informal so you do not require anything more than smart-casual clothes unless dressing up is your thing.
Binoculars and a camera with a good zoom lens are an absolute must if you want to see and photograph wildlife, and polarized sunglasses help to cut down the glare off the water or ice. Pack a foldable umbrella and sunscreen to prepare for whatever weather Alaska throws at you. A swimsuit is useful for the ship’s pool and I like to travel on ships which have an indoor pool, spa and hot tub for when the weather turns bad.
All Alaskan cruises sail the Inside Passage for the majority of the itinerary, however, there is are small sections of the trip that can be choppy. Take something that will prevent seasickness from ruining your holiday. Finally, if you plan to take any excursions into the wilderness, you will need mosquito repellent.
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge